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Klamath Tribes sue federal government over water releases to farmers

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The Klamath Tribes are suing the federal government under the Endangered Species Act to halt water diversions from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigated agriculture along the Oregon-California border.

The lawsuit, filed May 9 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation, seeks to protect two species of endangered sucker fish, C’waam and Koptu, that are endemic in the Upper Klamath River drainage.

C’waam and Koptu are culturally significant to the Klamath Tribes, used historically for food and ceremonial purposes. Both species were listed as endangered in 1988, and populations that once numbered in the tens of millions have since declined to fewer than 50,000 surviving fish, according to tribal estimates.

Reclamation operates the Klamath Project, delivering irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake for 170,000 acres of farmland straddling Southern Oregon and Northern California. Farmers in the basin grow potatoes, onions, horseradish, garlic, mint and hay, among other crops.

As part of an environmental assessment with the USFWS — known as a Biological Opinion, or BiOp — Reclamation must maintain a minimum surface elevation of 4,142 feet in Upper Klamath Lake during April and May for C’waam and Koptu to access shoreline spawning habitat.

However, with the basin suffering through its third consecutive year of extreme drought, the agencies acknowledged there is not enough water in the system to meet that objective.

Despite this, Reclamation announced in April it would release approximately 50,000 acre-feet of water for irrigators. That is just 15% of full demand.

Despite the limited allocation the Tribes argue the government is willingly violating the ESA while C’waam and Koptu slip closer to extinction.

In a statement, the Tribes claimed they “see no alternative” but to sue the federal agencies.

“When their own longstanding formula (driving their own ecologically inadequate BiOp) showed that zero water could be safely taken from endangered fish for agriculture, (Reclamation) simply tossed it aside and made the cynical political calculation that they could ignore the ESA with impunity, allocate water to Project farmers and hasten the imminent extinction of fish that have lived here, and only here, in the homeland of the Klamath Tribes for thousands of years,” the Tribes stated.

Clayton Dumont, a tribal councilman and chairman-elect, said the agencies “have proven repeatedly that we cannot trust them to do the right thing, follow the law, and do even the minimum necessary to sustain our treaty-protected fish.”

The Tribes are asking a district judge in Medford, Ore. to suspend Reclamation’s 2022 Operations Plan for the Klamath Project until it complies with the ESA.

This year’s water supply for the Klamath Project is the second-lowest in history, ahead of only 2021, when irrigators received no allotment from Upper Klamath Lake.

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents 1,200 family farms and ranches in the Project, has criticized the government for denying them adequate water, particularly when global food supplies are threatened overseas by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For context, the KWUA says the anticipated 50,000 acre-foot Project allotment represents no more than 5% of all the water that will be used this season from Upper Klamath Lake. About 40% will be sent down the Klamath River for ESA-listed salmon, 28% will be held in the lake for C’waam and Koptu and 27% will be lost to evaporation.

“Win, lose or draw, this lawsuit is not going to make any difference for the suckers, anyway,” said Paul Simmons, the group’s executive director.

Reclamation is providing $20 million in immediate drought assistance to farmers, paying them to fallow land in exchange for reducing water demand. The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, which administers the funds, is accepting applications through June 15.

For more information or questions about the program, contact info@klamathwaterbank.com or 541-630-0752.



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